Various thoughts on current events with an emphasis on politics, legal issues, books, movies and whatever is on my mind. Emails can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org; please put "blog comments" in the subject line.
Rev. Joe -- "Disentangling Conscience and Religion"
I saw but only skimmed a bit an article on a subject of interest to me -- "Disentangling Conscience and Religion." So, the remarks below should not be seen as that responsive to the article overall though checking it out is recommended. Meanwhile, I am reading Bart Ehrman'sForged: Writing in the Name of God — Why the Bible's Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are, which basically extends old themes. Good light reading. Ha.
The second flag salute case that is a seminal one in our jurisprudence spoke of "the conscience of the objector." The opinion focused on what might be called "freedom of the mind." This principle reaffirmed in Stanley v. Georgia: "Our whole constitutional heritage rebels at the thought of giving government the power to control men's minds." That is pretty general, but conscience is often tied to religion. Justice Murphy's concurrence (combining religion and speech) in Barnette noted:
But there is before us the right of freedom to believe, freedom to worship one's Maker according to the dictates of one's conscience, a right which the Constitution specifically shelters. Reflection has convinced me that as a judge I have no loftier duty or responsibility than to uphold that spiritual freedom to its farthest reaches.
The article explains that traditionally there was seen as a special connection between conscience and religious belief -- conscience is that human ability to judge right and wrong, but is it necessarily tied to religious belief (or God)? The Supreme Court has from time to time spoke of a "right to conscience" (e.g., "the individual's freedom to believe, to worship, and to express himself in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience") that leaves things somewhat open. Abortion, for example, is something individuals are to choose as a matter of conscience, based on their own moral code. See, e.g., Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Overall, Justice Douglas had it right:
It is true that the First Amendment speaks
of the free exercise of religion, not of the free exercise of conscience
or belief. Yet conscience and belief are the main ingredients of First
Amendment rights. They are the bedrock of free speech, as well as religion.
The flag salute case underlines how freedom of conscience involves various First Amendment liberties, the right to freely choose one's moral path a matter of expression, association and religious belief. This subject might have a familiar cast to it because past entries spoke about my broad understanding of the term "religion," so the difference between "conscience" and "religion" is somewhat unimportant. Conscience is an important aspect to religious freedom, necessary for its full enjoyment,* including as part of a person's freedom to choose (if one wants to define it more narrowly) not to have a religion.
"Religion" does have some limited meaning, broad as it might be, both as a matter of belief and action. Religion often is about action -- in ancient times, religion was often largely about ritual. This might also include certain people in control of rituals, perhaps a community who themselves providing a restraining hand. The ultimate restraint might be supernatural, but some might argue that it is this community of believers that are. Questions of conscience might be separate. Still, as religion grew more monotheistic, the understanding that one God guided us all would join the two together. Conscience being an ability to know what is right, who else but God would in some fashion be the source of it all? And, if there was some perversion of things, there are evil forces in the world. A sort of gnostic view of things in fact has more of a logic to it, in a fashion.
But, if religion is a matter of ritual, perhaps beliefs in the afterlife when good and evil are judged (seen as an important check on society as might the institutions of the church themselves -- the freestanding believer deciding things would be less useful there, the dissenter traditionally seen as somewhat of a threat to societal well being) and how best to serve your God, conscience can be separate for those without all of that. I do think "your God" can have a broad meaning, broader than the usual view of some supernatural being. I think "God" can be a sort of symbolic thing, a means to make certain hazy thing like an ideal view of good to be more concrete, which many of us find more manageable. It is like use of idols as symbols (like some use religious items today) in the past or even stories of gods and goddesses that many did not take literally, but as a sort of poetic license of our reality.
Anyway, I understand that "conscience" and "religion" should be given some meaning, that everything cannot be defined by such terms. There are complexities and the article covers some of them. All the same, I'm not sure how much it matters at the end of the day in our every day life, even as a matter of legal questions. We still should have freedom of conscience, which is related to, if not completely enmeshed with, religious liberty. We have a broader view of both these days and better for it.
* For those who find the "penumbra" language of Griswold silly, perhaps Brennan's language is more to your liking -- the "Bill of Rights goes beyond the specific guarantees to protect from
congressional abridgment those equally fundamental personal rights
necessary to make the express guarantees fully meaningful." The theme works in general.